Shit Storm in Finland: Black Man Cast in a White Man’s Role

When I saw the tabloid headlines about the outrage caused by casting a black actor to play the role of Mannerheim, a national hero, I thought the tabloids were only trying to stir up a fuss and that they would never succeed in it. It’s 2012! Who cares about the colour of the actor, right?

Wrong, as it turns out. Once again I was too optimistic about the state of the world, what with spending most of my time with over-civilised, over-educated people who were apparently born with their minds wide open to the world. I only had to log on facebook, and the truth hit me. Even though I mostly come into contact with university educated folks on a daily basis, I keep in touch with non-educated old childhood friends and relatives. Many of them are my facebook friends, so occasionally I get glimpses of what “common people” think.

They think casting a black man to play Mannerheim is unthinkable. Everyone knows Mannerheim was white, duh! They think the film makers should be sued… for what, they’re not quite sure, but they should definitely be sued! One guy said watching the trailer of the film was like having his eyes stabbed.

Come on, people, what’s the problem here? If you’ve seen the trailer, you know the film is set in Kenya. There have been plenty of films and novels about the life of Mannerheim, and now film makers are trying to find a new spin to an old story by changing the time and the place of the events. It’s a fictional film, not a documentary. It’s set in Kenya. I don’t know about you but I think it would be even stranger if the leading role was played by a Finnish actor, seeing as the character is meant to be a Kenyan war hero who lives in Kenya.

I’m not completely naïve and I don’t quite believe the film makers are honestly just looking for a novel approach. They must have known that this would create a bit of a controversy, giving the film extra publicity… unless they really were as naïve as I was, thinking that it’s 2012 and people will care about the story rather than the hue of the actor’s skin. Whether the film makers were purposefully trying to create outrage or not, it’s pretty embarrassing for Finns that there was outrage.

If someone had wanted to tell the story of Martin Luther King in a Scandinavian setting, imagining that such a character was born in Finland, with a Finnish man playing the leading role… I wonder if there would have been such a shit storm?

About inmyinternest

A thirty-something woman, watching the world turn
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6 Responses to Shit Storm in Finland: Black Man Cast in a White Man’s Role

  1. tarpfrog says:

    I think there would have been a shit storm with the Martin Luther King, Jr. scenario as well, mainly because race was central to MLK’s struggle. I have heard about Othello being performed by a white actor, but surrounded by black actors. I think that one was considered “edgy.”

    Race is touchy. It’s always upsetting when people’s well-concealed hate rears its ugly head. But I would argue that it’s also a good thing. I have no doubt in my mind that the director of your play was being intentionally provocative, to make people talk about it. Talking about it, even when people are angry and narrow-minded with what they say, does sometimes help them to see how angry and narrow-minded they are.

    Whenever something like this happens, I comfort myself by looking at it historically. Yes, things aren’t perfect, but look how far we’ve come. And, as I believe, look how far we will continue to go in the next generation or two.

    Thanks for the post. Interesting to see how things are in Finland. About the same here in the US, it sounds like. 🙂

  2. Good point about Martin Luther King Jr’s racial struggle! If his story was adapted into a Finnish setting, the character would have had to belong to an oppressed minority, like the Finnish Romanis. Their position in the society in the fifties was comparable to those of African descent in America.

    I hope you’re also right about the positive effects of such shit storms! So far there have been very few voices of reason in the tirade of absurd racial hatred. Of course, partly it’s because Mannerheim is a national symbol so some people don’t like it when he is portrayed in a way they see as unrealistic. I wonder if they even understood that the whole film is set in Kenya, that it’s not a movie about Mannerheim where everything else is historically accurate but for some reason, the main character is a black guy? (That’s the way the tabloids presented it but the trailer should have cleared up that misunderstanding.)

    “Interesting to see how things are in Finland. About the same here in the US, it sounds like.”

    Well, yes and no! We are a considerably less ethnically diverse population than what you have in the USA. There are lots of immigrants and second, third and fourth generation immigrant descendants in the large cities of the South of Finland but there are small towns in the more rural areas of the country where some of the people have never seen a black person or an Asian person. The people in those rural areas may think of themselves as open-minded but when they go to a bigger town, they may point and stare when they see black people, or Muslim women in covering clothing.

    I had a guest from a small town in the North, and she said things like, “Look how dark that man’s skin is! It’s coal black!” and “There are so many foreigners here it feels like being abroad!” without realising that most of those “foreigners” were actually born in Finland.

    So when “foreigners” are so exotic to the less educated people who have lived all their lives far from the large population centres, I suppose it’s understandable that the idea of a black actor comes as a shock to them. But if that’s what’s causing it, then our immigration policy has been rather misguided. While most people in the big cities acknowledge and accept that a Finnish person may have dark skin or Asian hairtype, the country cousins still think everyone who doesn’t have blue eyes and fair hair is “foreigner!”

    (I’m as Finnish as can be but I’ve been mistaken for an Arab because I have dark eyes and fairly dark hair, for a Finn. It felt odd to be discriminated because of my appearance, especially when I have no “exotic” genes to boast about! I can’t imagine how frustrating it would be to deal with that kind of discrimination on a daily basis.)

  3. Someone from Finland says:

    Well I just had to answer.

    It is common knowledge that pretty much no one was offended. Yle was just trying to promote the movie with a fake uproar. 99% of people were just laughing and thought this movie is a total joke. Come on now it was done with 20.000 euros or something.

    Especially no one was offended because the actor was a black man. They were offended that they used the brand of Mannerheim and used it in a film that had pretty much nothing to do with him.

    • That’s exactly what I thought until I saw what people were saying about it on facebook and other forums. Even some of my facebook friends, people I personally know, were offended simply because they thought a black person wasn’t suitable to play Mannerheim. Of course, that’s partly because of the way the media played it, as you said. The whole thing was meant to provoke the most ignorant “immigration critics” out there…

      Until very recently, I used to ignore the idiots and try to think positively. Most of the people I know are open-minded humanists, so it was possible for me to keep believing that overall, things are going pretty well. But every time I risked a peek outside my civilised bubble, more and more people were expressing more and more intolerant views. Hate speech has become more common in the past few years and it’s gaining momentum. That’s why I started this blog. My main agenda is fighting misogyny but I’m pro-equality for everyone regardless of gender, skin colour, social background, etc.

  4. Nicholas says:

    This is so typical lol.

    It has nothing to do with racism. Most people just think it’s weird and stupid and ridiculous when they cast black people as people that weren’t black or in times when there were no black people in northern europe. Or pretty much no black people.

    And a black person not being able to play a white person has nothing to do with equality.

    • I really hope you’re right about that because that would mean the world is a somewhat better place than I thought! But I’d like to point out that this is not a movie that’s set in Finland, in Mannerheim’s day and age, when there weren’t many black people in Northern Europe. The film is set in modern day Kenya, and only some aspects of Mannerheim’s life and character are used in the story. So it shouldn’t have caused an outrage to have a black person cast to play the character of Mannerheim.

      Of course there probably wouldn’t have been such an outrage if the tabloids hadn’t led people into thinking it was going to be a historically accurate film with a Kenyan actor playing the leading role. I hope, as you say, that the majority of people reacted like they did simply because they thought the idea was absurd and pointless. But the reason I ended up blogging about it was that a staggering amount of people were expressing unambiguously racist views on facebook and in the comment sections of the tabloids’ online versions.

      Besides, even if people think it’s “just” weird and stupid and ridiculous to have a black person playing a white role… I still think that speaks volumes about the underlying attitudes. Why is it weird and stupid? Personally, I think such casting is just another way of trying to find fresh new angles to old stories, and I see no reason to get all worked up about it.

      Or maybe casting black actors to white roles is a way of exposing hidden prejudice… in which case the Finns definitely got busted. The reaction of totally unprejudiced people would have been, “Yeah, whatever!” Luckily many people had just that reaction. Not all Finns are racist, or even secretly prejudiced. But this post was about the unabashed racists who crawled out of the woodwork when the tabloids screamed, “Black Mannerheim!”

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